Now comes that moment of panic that all AHS reviewers experience at least once a season; that “Oh, shit” moment when they have to point out that a universally loved and ridiculously-difficult-to-critique show just put out an episode that simply isn’t very good by any standard. Cue the “Just enjoy it!” “It’s not meant to be analyzed!” responses. To which we pre-say: Feh. All art and expression – even the shittiest of TV shows – can and should be analyzed. It’s up to the receiver/viewer/reader/audience member to determine how far they’re willing to go in their critical analysis (and that determination is entirely personal and distinct each time), but we strongly reject the idea that any expressive/creative piece stands apart from or above (or even below) standard critical analysis.
Having said that, we’re still not going to go too deep into the weeds on our complaints. It essentially all comes down to this: the writing, as always, is uneven, muddled, and poorly paced. Half the characters have paper-thin, summed-up-in-one-word motivations (Revenge! Power!) while the other half have no motivations at all, leaving them free to act wildly inconsistent from scene to scene. The plot stagnates to the point of growing algae on it, then it lurches forward unexpectedly, scattering the players to the wind or suddenly mashing them up together, as if a toddler got bored with a set of toys.
In other words: It’s a typical American Horror Story season.
Really, our current fit of critical pique comes down to the fact that, six episodes into the season, it feels like the story finally got started last night. But because there’s been so much dawdling and ambience-setting in the first five episodes, the writers really had to churn things up in order to get things started. The result was a scatterbrained episode that wasn’t the most entertaining hour in the show’s history (because there was so much plot to pack in), but left us looking forward to seeing the story progress further and this world open up a little wider. You could argue that’s a good thing, but applying just the tiniest bit more thought into the writing would allow the creators to let this story unfold a little more organically and consistently. It feels like the previous five episodes of this season were all acting and art direction.
Which brings us to our next point: this season looks fantastic, no doubt about it. And by adding Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates to the AHS Repertory Players – and giving them both the meatiest damn roles they could ask for, literally tailored to their strengths exactly – it’s definitely one of the best-acted shows on television right now. It’s all divas tearing up scenery and scenery that looks like a Vogue editorial. But it’s lacking something the last season had in spades; something that allowed the show to deflect any criticism: boldness. When nothing made sense last season and it all started looking like a spastic fever dream instead of a story, the very least you could say about it was that it sure was bold in what it was trying to do; addressing old school Catholicism, anti-gay conversion therapy, alien abductions, serial killers, abortion, Satan, medical experimentation and Nazis, with an extra special appearance by an adult Anne Frank and an unexpected song and dance number just for the hell of it. This season: bitches be crazy. That’s about the gist of it. Fun bitches, to be sure. Campy bitches. But the story so far is entirely about women with power, fighting other women with power, usually in order to secure or gain power. Sure, there’s been some tips of the hat to examining the racial history of this country, and an attempt to cast this story as a response to patriarchy, but for the most part, it’s Alexis and Krystle slinging spells instead of Champagne glasses at each other.
And that’s fine, for the most part. It’s been fun. But we’re on the sixth episode of the season and we feel it’s safe to say it has nowhere near the depth or boldness of seasons past. There’s plenty of time left for that to change, but we realized with this episode just how much time has been spent on ambience and quips and how little has been spent on storytelling or even envelope-pushing.
And can we just say? Much as we love Danny Huston and even the character of the Axeman, a woman-hating ghost serial killer sure feels like a warmed-over concept on American Horror Story. There’s plenty of time to surprise us with this character, but his introduction felt a hundred percent been-there, done-that.
Also: If Zoe’s the next Supreme, she’s at least as murderously negligent in her own way as Fiona’s been. She unleashed FrankenKyle on his mother and the rest of the world and then unleashed a demonic serial killer with little more than a shrug. We find ourselves wishing more and more that Nan winds up Head Bitch in Charge when this is all over.
Also-Also: Now that all has been revealed about Cordelia’s husband, we find it a little hard to accept. Marie Laveau is in cahoots with a white, male witch-hunter? Sure, you can argue that war makes strange bedfellows, but this guy represents every single thing she despises about the world.
Also-Also-Also: Has there truly been a horror moment this season? Some shocks and grossouts, sure. But real horror that made you actually feel fear, the way a horror story is supposed to work?
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